The U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government sent its national guard troops into the streets outside one of Islam’s most sacred sites for the first time Tuesday and threatened to kill or imprison the cleric whose militant followers are holding the shrine.
The moves came as a chaotic all-night battle for control of a parking garage and other buildings west of the Imam Ali shrine left 13 U.S. Marines wounded and at least five Al Mahdi militiamen dead, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. pounded the buildings in the Old City with more than a dozen. artillery rounds and gunfire from AC-130 warplanes in a battle that continued this morning.
A U.S. military doctor on the scene said some of the Marines became casualties of “friendly fire” as they were caught between two tank positions and hit by cannon fire.
The Iraqi troops, patrolling with U.S. military advisors, conducted house-to-house searches here and helped secure a cordon around the gold-domed Imam Ali Mosque, which forces loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr have held since the standoff began nearly three weeks ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan declared that Sadr had to surrender the shrine or face an assault by Iraqi forces.
“If he continues to resist, then there will be no options for him other than death or prison,” Shaalan said, speaking at a military base outside Najaf.
The strong-arm tactics appeared to have an effect. Shortly after Shaalan’s remarks, a Sadr aide hastily arranged a news conference at a hotel in downtown Najaf to assure reporters that the militants were committed to dialogue.
Sadr “is ready for any peaceful solution aiming at solving the problem,” Ali Smeisim, a top Sadr aide, told reporters.
Support for Sadr appeared to have been waning in recent days. Members of his Al Mahdi militia have been seen slipping away from the shrine during the days after nighttime U.S. bomb and gunship attacks on militia positions in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The government’s tough talk came on another day of conflict in Iraq. Al Mahdi militants took to the streets in the southern city of Basra to protest after the British army appealed to local police to disarm the militia.
And the Abu Hafs Masri Brigade, a group claiming ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, announced that it was holding Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, 56, who disappeared on his way to Najaf last week, according to Al Jazeera satellite television. The group threatened to kill Baldoni in 48 hours unless Italy withdrew troops from Iraq.
Another Islamic group, the Iraqi Mujahedin Islamic Movement, announced that it was freeing kidnapped Lebanese trucker Mohammed Raad, though a release could not be immediately confirmed, Al Arabiya television reported.
Another Islamic group threatened to attack Royal Jordanian Airlines planes flying into Baghdad, while yet another threatened to harm U.S. citizens and Iraqi oil supplies if American troops did not pull out of Najaf.
“We will attack every soldier from the coalition forces or U.S. citizens all over Iraq. We will not spare any driver who is working for the Americans,” said a statement by a previously unknown group identifying itself as the Islamic Hussein Brigade.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported that a soldier with the 13th Corps Support Command died early Tuesday after a vehicle accident near Fallouja. His death brought to 965 the toll of military personnel since the Iraq war began.
Also in Fallouja, U.S. warplanes bombed the Askeri area early today, killing four people and injuring three, said Dr. Ahmed Saleh at the Fallouja Teaching Hospital.
The standoff at the Najaf shrine has been a challenge for the government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. An attack on the shrine to dislodge the militants risks angering Iraq’s majority Shiites, who revere it as the burial place of Imam Ali, whom they consider the true heir to the prophet Muhammad. Yet the occupation of the mosque poses a political threat to Allawi as he struggles to assert control over a country torn by violence, chaos and economic problems.
The prime minister has alternated between threats and gestures of reconciliation throughout the standoff.
In recent days, however, the government has maintained a low profile, allowing Sadr to try to negotiate a deal to turn over the keys to the shrine to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s highest Shiite religious authority.
Those talks ended in a stalemate, and Tuesday’s actions seemed intended to spark a resolution to the standoff.
The confrontation could emerge as a major test for the Iraqi security forces, which had numerous desertions last spring during similar conflicts in Najaf and Fallouja.
On Tuesday, hundreds of soldiers from the recently formed Iraqi national guard began patrolling shellshocked Najaf, which has been subjected to mortar attacks, bombings and sniper battles. Many families have fled the city as water, electricity, food and fuel supplies have dwindled.
The Iraqi forces joined U.S. troops who had established a cordon around the mosque area and Najaf’s Old City. National guardsmen and Iraqi army soldiers have been mobilizing for the last week at a U.S. military camp north of Najaf.
“They are being fully integrated into all of our future operations,” said Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.
So far, Iraqi forces have been used chiefly to help staff checkpoints and clear neighborhoods behind the front lines, particularly south of the shrine.
However, if an assault on the mosque is ordered, Iraqi forces are expected to take a prominent role, entering the shrine and removing militiamen.
Haider Hassan Waheed, commander of one of the Iraqi patrols, said spirits were high among his men. “We are the Iraqis who will purge the holy shrine,” Waheed said.
U.S. military officials said they noticed a softening of the resistance in the previous 24 hours in certain areas, including the cemetery north of the shrine.
The military no longer releases estimates of the number of militiamen killed, but officers in Najaf put the tally at about 200 over the last two days. They believe that the losses have damped morale in the militia.
Soldiers suspect that the mosque and other strongholds are being controlled by an inner circle of Sadr’s most experienced fighters.
“All that’s left now is the hard core,” said Sgt. James Sanders of the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, which has been seeing some of the fiercest fighting in the Old City.
But there were signs that resistance was weakening in the Old City. Mortar attacks on U.S. positions decreased Tuesday.
In the cemetery, Army units were surprised late Monday by the lack of resistance when they attacked targets about 200 yards from the mosque.
The military released photos Tuesday said to show that militiamen had set up mortar positions in the mosque complex. Military officials said Sadr’s fighters misfired a mortar round early Tuesday, hitting the roof of the mosque and landing 10 yards away.
“This is the first day we have not seen a lot of enemy coming at us,” said Lt. Col. Jim Rainey, commander of the 2nd Battalion.
It was not clear when, or if, an attack against Sadr’s forces would begin. But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his government would prefer a peaceful solution in which Sadr’s followers would evacuate the shrine and disarm.
He encouraged them to participate in the political process expected to culminate in elections in January.
“The Iraqi police and the national guard are quite capable,” Zebari said. “They are putting both psychological and military pressure on the armed militia groups until they comply with the government’s demands.”
Times staff writer Alissa Rubin in Baghdad and special correspondents Suhail Affan in Baghdad, Othman Ghanim in Basra and Raheem Salman in Najaf contributed to this report.